Elizabeth is Missing — Can Her Friend with Alzheimer’s Find Her?

Many films and documentaries have been made about Alzheimer’s and dementia. But, very few have gotten the critical acclaim of Elizabeth is Missing, a PBS film that was released earlier this month.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing is a story about loss, aging, and cognitive decline. Maud, a woman with steadily-worsening Alzheimer’s disease, is determined to find her missing friend Elizabeth. She struggles to solve the mystery of her friend’s disappearance while her dementia erases the clues. Does she persevere? Don’t worry, I won’t give too many spoilers!

A Peek Into the Story

Maud Horsham (played by actress Glenda Jackson, who won a BAFTA and an International Emmy for the role) is a widow in her eighties living with Alzheimer’s. She still lives on her own, with cabinets full of canned peaches (she forgets she’s already bought them) and abandoned cups of tea (she forgets she’s made them), relying on sticky notes to remind her of what she’s done that day and what she plans to be doing tomorrow.

In one of her many notes to herself, Maud reminds herself to wait for her best friend Elizabeth outside of their local thrift shop, but Elizabeth never arrives. Maud immediately knows that something is wrong, but none of the people around her, not even her daughter or her granddaughter believe or care that Elizabeth is gone. Maud decides to take matters into her own hands and solve Elizabeth’s disappearance, despite her own declining memory.

Maud Recalls Her Past to Help Her Solve the Mystery of Elizabeth’s Disappearance

Similar to many people with Alzheimer’s, although Maud’s understanding of the present is fuzzy, her memories of the past are quite clear. For instance, Maud remembers every detail of the year her sister went missing decades ago, which helps her uncover clues to finding Elizabeth.

Maud has two mysteries going through her mind, but they aren’t the focal point of the story and the film isn’t really about her pushing either case forward. The central theme is more that Maud’s life in the present is becoming increasingly unmanageable as her dementia progresses. You can sense the frustration tied to two missing women and the investigations and how she has to keep referring to her many post-it notes and starting anew.

Lessons Learned from Elizabeth is Missing

The following are some of the central themes of the film, helping the viewer to see life through the eyes of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s:

Alzheimer’s is cruel: In the film, Maud hurts herself and can’t remember how it happens, she has an accident on her way to the bathroom, she can’t recognize her granddaughter and calls her terrible things (she dotes on her granddaughter, so she would never do this under normal circumstances.)

With Alzheimer’s you often lose awareness: The film brings the viewer into Maud’s mind as she starts to lose awareness of what is happening around her. Maud struggles to maintain mental and physical control in her own life, from forgetting who her daughter is to lashing out in bursts of destructive anger. In one instance, Maud snaps at a store cashier who points out that she bought peaches just the day before, but while Maud growls defensively that obviously, she wants the peaches, the fear and uncertainty are clear in her eyes. Why doesn’t she know that she bought peaches yesterday?

The film depicts the loneliness and isolation that many older people with Alzheimer’s experience. In the film when she realizes her friend is missing, Maud reflects that “Elizabeth is the only friend I have left; the others are in homes or graves.” As she sits home alone, she thinks, “I have plenty of time to look at everything, and no one to tell what I’ve seen.”

The world is often impatient with those who have Alzheimer’s: In the film, the policemen tease Maud about her frequent visits to the station, the doctor is tired of her calls, the manager at the charity shop reminds her that she doesn’t need Maud’s help, Maud’s son is exasperated with her, and her daughter is frequently frustrated with her.

All people should be treated with dignity and respect: Elizabeth is Missing reminds us of the importance of treating people with dignity & respect as they start to lose their memory.

How Elizabeth is Missing Hits So Close to Home for Families of Those Suffering from Alzheimer’s

In an interview with the author of the book, which was closely followed in the film, Emma Healey discusses how she spent a lot of time with relatives who have or had Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The initial inspiration for the book came from her grandmother, Nancy, who she said had multi-infarct dementia. Emma was in the car with her one day and she told Emma she didn’t know where one of her friends was — she’d tried calling, but got no answer. Luckily they had a mutual friend who knew that the “missing” woman was staying with her daughter. That was the end of the mystery in real life, but it got Emma thinking about how it might translate to fiction. Then Emma watched as her grandmother’s dementia worsened, Emma began to come up with lots of questions she wanted to research about what was going on inside her grandmother’s head and was inspired to write a story from her point of view to help herself and others understand what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Elizabeth is Missing is Highly Acclaimed

John Powers, a critic who wrote about the film in NPR did not expect it to be so entertaining and well-done. He hesitated at first when it came to watching and reviewing another film on dementia, but ended up watching this one based on the recommendation of a trusted friend. According to Powers, “Elizabeth is Missing was not what I feared.” He called it a “psychological thriller — a Disease of the Week movie crossed with Memento.” The film got a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an impeccable write-up in the New York Times.

Plan for the Future if Your Loved One Has Dementia

Similar to Maud in the film, it is possible to live alone and manage if you are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but it gets more challenging as time progresses. There will come a time when you will need more care and support than you can provide for yourself in your home. If you or a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, you will face special legal and financial needs as your disease progresses. The best time to plan is now, while you can still contribute to important decisions about your future and your loved ones.

At the Farr Law Firm, we assist clients and family members of those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias through the process of Life Care Planning and Medicaid Planning (also called Medicaid Asset Protection Planning). Our goal is to help protect a family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If your family is facing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Medicaid Planning Fairfax, VA: 703-691-1888
Medicaid Planning Fredericksburg, VA: 540-479-
Medicaid Planning Rockville, MD: 301-519-8041
Medicaid Planning Washington, DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.